Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

American

Philosophy Weekend: Is Religious War a Fraud?

by Levi Asher on Saturday, June 21, 2014 06:59 pm


I observed a strange reaction among my friends -- especially my fellow liberals -- when a new insurgent group calling itself "The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria" began capturing towns and small cities in war-torn Iraq.

There's really nothing new about this insurgent group, which represents the same Sunni coalition that lost power with the fall of Saddam Hussein and has been trying to get it back ever since. But all of a sudden, several of my friends were up in arms about the insurgency. Why? Because they're fundamentalists.

Indeed, the new insurgency is using Islamic fundamentalism as a way to gain support (and frighten Brits and Americans). It's a smart strategic move: calls to religion have always been useful recruiting tools in time of war. But what amazes me is that some of my American friends are more offended by the fact that the new insurgents are religious than by the fact that they are rampaging through towns murdering political opponents with their families.

The atrocities are perfectly acceptable, apparently ... as long as they don't start bringing sharia into it.






Daniel Keyes: Flowers for Algernon and The Touch

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, June 17, 2014 07:53 pm


Sure, every other obituary of 86-year-old Brooklyn novelist Daniel Keyes is going to talk about Flowers for Algernon. And, yeah, that was his best book. But I'm going to talk about The Touch, simply because I remember this novel well, and because nobody else is going to mention it.

As a lonely middle school kid, I was so desperate for good books that I would bottom-feed the local library stacks, looking for off-hit books by writers who were (I could already tell at my young age) literary one-hit wonders. This is why during the waning years of the Summer of Love and the waxing years of the Me Decade I read Love, Roger by Charles Webb (author of The Graduate), David Meyer is a Mother by Gail Parent (author of Sheila Levine), This Perfect Day by Ira Levin (Rosemary's Baby). And it's why I read The Touch by Daniel Keyes, author of the powerful Flowers for Algernon. I suppose I was also attracted to The Touch by the mod cover design, which reveals Daniel Keyes trying to reach a hip adult literary audience. That never quite happened, but we'll always have Flowers for Algernon.






Furthur Will Ride Again

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, May 27, 2014 07:41 pm


Furthur, Further ... that literary device on wheels, that great American rolling metaphor.

Fifty years after novelist Ken Kesey gathered his friends into a painted bus and drove a jagged route from California to New York City, the novelist's son Zane Kesey is hitting the road again, in a new bus with a new gang of Merry Pranksters, funded by a Kickstarter that has already met its goal.






Colson Whitehead's Gloomy Game

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, May 21, 2014 06:48 pm


I was nothing but psyched when I heard that postmodern novelist Colson Whitehead was writing a book about poker. Sure sounded like a great idea to me.

Whitehead is a clever, acidic satirist with a gift for inventive situations and touching emotional connections. Can he write? Absolutely -- novels like The Intuitionist and Apex Hides the Hurt have proven this. But can he write about poker? His new book The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death has some big problems (and, no, I'm not going to refer to the book as a "bad beat" or a "dead hand" so please stop expecting the obvious puns).






The Last Illusion by Porochista Khakpour

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, May 13, 2014 08:24 am


In one remarkable moment in The Last Illusion, a new novel by Porochista Khakpour, a shy and vulnerable young man who was raised as a bird in a cage meets an impetuous young woman who seems to understand him. He then meets her sister, who is so enormously fat that she lives her life in bed, occasionally dressing up in a tiara and gown and high-heeled shoes under her blanket.

We expect Zal, the young man, to become infatuated with Asiya, the passionate and intelligent young woman, and in fact Zal does like and respect Asiya very much. But it's Willa, the gigantic sister who lives in bed that Zal falls instantly and completely in love with.






Wilderness, 1864

by Levi Asher on Monday, May 5, 2014 10:45 am


Exactly 150 years today, the most grueling and relentless eight days of the Civil War in the United States of America began. These are the opening days of the Overland Campaign, in which two armies rampaged south through north-central Virginia in their final race towards Richmond, capital city of the Confederacy. They stopped frequently along the way to try to kill each other.

The Overland Campaign was recently featured in the TV series House of Cards. The crooked politician played by Kevin Spacey visits a newly dedicated (and fictional) battlefield park dedicated to the Overland Campaign, and meets a reenactor costumed as his own doomed Rebel ancestor. In real life, the park is known as the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Battlefield, and despite the House of Cards fabrication, it's not dedicated just to the Overland Campaign: there were so many fights in this region that Wilderness and Spotsylvania have to share space with Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, where major battles were fought in 1862 and 1963.

Those were also critical and immense conflagrations, but Civil War experts know the Overland Campaign was the greatest match of them all, because it was in these battles -- Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Yellow Tavern, Cold Harbor -- that General Ulysses S. Grant faced General Robert E. Lee directly for the first time. This was the big one, the championship between the two top teams. This was the Finals, and it was a hell of a fight.






Updike on 43rd Street

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, April 8, 2014 08:24 pm


A literary biography ought to possess a voice and attitude that reflects and complements the literary voice and attitude of its subject. Leon Edel's life of Henry James is prim and probing, with an energy that gradually accumulates into stately magnificence. Gerald Nicosia's biography of Jack Kerouac is passionate, melancholy and fitful. This is how it should be, but this implicit rule must have been daunting to Adam Begley when he began writing Updike, the first comprehensive biography of the great fiction writer and critic John Updike, who died in 2009.

John Updike was, after all, one of the most confident and erudite prose stylists of his era, and an immensely likable writer. Fortunately, Adam Begley rises to the challenge in this enjoyable and perceptive biography, and while Begley doesn't attempt sentences of Updikian beauty and complexity, he does follow the master's lead in conjuring buoyant revelations from ordinary situations. Like a good Updike novel, this book captures the richness of one person's well-lived life.






Philosophy Weekend: Can A Person Be Guilty Of Genocide?

by Levi Asher on Sunday, April 6, 2014 08:03 am


One of many unforgettable moments in Philip Gourevitch's book about the 1994 Rwanda genocide We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families is the author's visit to Gitarama prison a year after the massacre. He finds a scene of incredible physical misery, though the sufferers barely complain. It's the suspected Hutu perpetrators of the previous year's genocide, not the Tutsi victims, who are crowded together here.

On the day of my visit to Gitarama Prison, six thousand four hundred and twenty-four prisoners formed a solid-looking knot, and I had to plan each step I took with care. It was difficult to figure out how the people fitted together -- which limbs went with which body, or why a head appeared to have grown three legs without a torso in between. Many of the feet were badly swollen. The bodies were clad in rags.

Gourevitch is perplexed by what he finds as he visits various prisons holding thousands and thousands of suspected Hutu killers. The prisoners could easily escape, the author observes, but they don't try. They just sit there.

Although the tightly packed inmates were all accused of terrible violence, they were generally calm and orderly; fights among them were said to be rare, and killings unheard of. They greeted visitors amiably, often with smiles and with hands extended for a shake ... The captain kept calling out, "Here's a journalist from the United States," and the huddled men, squatting at our feet, clapped mechanically and made little bowing motions. It occurred to me that this was the famous mob mentality of blind obedience to authority which was often described in attempts to explain the genocide.

Blind obedience to authority is what these bewildered prisoners are guilty of, and it appears possible that they are so passive because they have already judged themselves to be guilty, that they look so confused because they don't understand themselves how they suddenly transformed into murderers. Some of them admit this to Gourevitch, and later he talks to a former Hutu leader who has returned to the village where he presided over the murder of approximately seventy of his neighbors to ask for forgiveness from the few survivors who remain.






Philosophy Weekend: Genocide is Not a Force of Nature

by Levi Asher on Friday, March 28, 2014 10:03 pm


We speak of genocide as a problem from Hell, but we rarely speak of it as an ethical problem that can be solved. This suggests that we have ceased to think of genocide as a problem of human dimensions. We have become as superstitious about genocide as cave dwellers must have been about tornadoes and hurricanes: we see it as a rare force of nature, bigger and stronger than us. We hope the monster never comes our way, and if it ever does we plan to hide.

Philosophers need to get their courage back, because genocide is an ethical problem that must be solved. Organizations like the United Nations and Amnesty International toil weakly to solve it as a political problem, while Doctors Without Borders fights it as a practical problem, striving year after year around the world to alleviate the pain. But none of these organizations are designed to analyze the psychological roots of the problem, or to propose great philosophical epiphanies that might change the world. Indeed, I know I must appear foolish when I suggest that any kind of moral epiphany could possibly help, even though I'm quite sure it could.

We should expect our best ethical philosophers to address this topic often, but the great thinkers of the 20th century shied away. Sartre did not manage to communicate clearly on the topic of genocide, nor did Nozick or Rawls or Tillich or Jaspers or (ahem) Heidegger. Today, we have a few well-known academic ethicists like Derek Parfit, but they tend to steer far clear of bold speculations about the causes of our worst real-world problems. Alain de Botton has created a clever and brazen philosophical website called The Philosophers Mall that attempts to connect trendy news stories about celebrities and pop culture to philosophical questions. De Botton is at least trying to think outside the box -- but a celebration of triviality in philosophy is the opposite of what we need the most.

We are a couple of weeks away from the 20th anniversary of the brutal genocide that took 800,000 lives in Rwanda in April 1994. I'm sure this 20th anniversary will generate some news blips, and perhaps a reminder of the disaster that is still occurring today in Darfur.






Philosophy Weekend: The Atrocity Cube

by Levi Asher on Saturday, March 22, 2014 07:50 pm


It's time to start putting some puzzle pieces together.

Five weekends ago I began a project by suggesting that we try to analyze some tough ethical/historical problems with the methodology of a puzzle-solver, by which I meant that we would determine a few principles or "tools" and then apply these principles or tools repetitively and mechanically until we reach a conclusion.

I originally spoke of Sudoku or KenKen puzzles, while today I'm showing a picture of a Rubik's Cube. It doesn't matter because the puzzle is only a broad metaphor for the experiment I'm trying to conduct. The goal is to obtain fresh insights that we don't seem to be able to obtain with our usual emotional and moral interpretations of history. You can't solve a Sudoku puzzle or a Rubik's Cube with your emotions, or with a demonstration of your moral goodness. You need to apply simple techniques repetitively and consistently, which leads me now to ask what simple techniques we use when trying to understand the worst and most well-known atrocities of recent history: the Holocaust, the Holodomor, the African slave trade, the massacres in Rwanda, the September 11 attacks, the killing fields of Cambodia, the Irish famine, China's Great Leap Forward, the massacre in Srebenica, the refugee death camps of Darfur, the current crisis in Syria.

The great puzzle we are trying to solve is this: why do these atrocities occur? I think the urgent need for fresh insight is obvious, since despite our hollow promises of "never again" these atrocities occur frequently today (in the list above, five of the atrocities occurred in the last twenty years, and at least two are happening right now).






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